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TWTS: We hereby sanction you to use "sanction" as you see fit

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At That’s What They Say, we get a lot of questions about whether a particular usage or spelling of a word has been sanctioned by the language powers that be. Curiously, we haven’t had any questions about the word “sanction,” until now.

Ted Baldwin wrote to us from Rhode Island with this question: “Have you ever delved into the reason that ‘sanction’ can mean both permission/approval and penalty/disapproval? How odd! Whenever I use the term I'm afraid someone will call me out for misuse!”

As co-hosts of a grammar podcast, we can certainly empathize with the fear of being called out for language usage. Hopefully, our deep-dive into “sanction” will help alleviate Ted’s fear, not to mention our own.

Years ago we did use “sanction” as an example of an auto-antonym, i.e. a word that can also mean its opposite. The verb “dust” is a good example. When you dust furniture, you’re removing dust. However, when you dust for fingerprints, you’re applying dust.

As Ted points out, “sanction” works the same way. It can mean both “to authorize” and “to penalize.” But how did that come to be?

The noun “sanction” came into English in the 1500s and referred to a law or a decree. Within 100 years, it also comes to refer to a penalty that’s enacted to enforce a law. A little bit later, the noun “sanction” is used for rewards given for obeying a law.

By the 1700s, the noun “sanction” moved beyond legal context to refer to authoritative permission or recognition. By the 20th century, it was being used in politics to refer to military or economic action that a state would take against another state.

There’s evidence that by the 1800s, “sanction” underwent a functional shift. That is, it took on a second usage as a verb meaning “to authorize.” To hear more about the linguistic journey of “sanction,” listen to the audio above.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.